Forest Service team in court over disbanding

The Olympian


PORTLAND -- Five Forest Service whistleblowers are finally getting their day in court, eight years after their elite task force that investigated corporate timber fraud was disbanded.
In the early 1990s, the newly created unit squared off against what critics say was a deeply entrenched industry practice of pinching a few extra trees from federal timber sales, with total losses to the public reaching an estimated $100 million a year.

The Portland-based unit covering Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska landed some big convictions, including a $1.7 million judgment for corporate theft of trees in Oregon.

The Forest Service disbanded the Timber Theft Task Force in 1995 and reassigned some investigators to arrest environmental protesters instead, said Tom Devine, the attorney for the whistleblowers.

Members suspected pressure from the timber industry prompted that decision, and filed a whistleblower lawsuit.

After eight years of delays in U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board court, which hears cases for civil servants working for the federal government, the trial opened Monday in Portland before judge Jeremiah Cassidy.

"We're finally getting our day in court," Devine said. "These criminal investigators were put out to pasture because they did their job too well and caught the wrong crooks."

In the second day of testimony Tuesday, former Forest Service Director Jack Thomas took the stand to deny he disbanded the unit in retaliation for timber-fraud investigations.

He said investigators were reassigned and their outstanding cases handed over to the FBI because the unit wasn't performing.

"Frankly, I was not impressed with the progress they were making," in cracking timber-theft cases, he said. Also, a sunset clause in the rules creating the task force had kicked in, he said.

In other testimony, Joe Cruz, former manager of the Deschutes National Forest, denied that timber investigators faced a culture of hostility within the agency and that he had assigned two task force members to work in a computer storage room as a means to humiliate the men.

Devine said investigators Tom Russel and Denis Shrader were punished for probing a timber-harvest fraud at a time when the central Oregon office was fending off a suit from conservation groups.

Cruz denied the suggestion, saying he was short of office space at the time.

The trial is expected to last through Nov. 21.


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